Editor’s note: it is impossible to capture the magnitude of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a huge book, let alone in an article about visiting Bethlehem. Some aspects of the conflict are necessary to explain as they affect the day-to-day experiences a traveler, like our Sam Spector, would have. We at The Royal Tour recognize that simply mentioning anything about it will anger some of our readers. I hope you recognize that Sam has stayed away from inserting his own opinions, but has focused solely on his experiences and a few key dates and facts. If your personal experiences – not conjecture or opinions, but actual experiences – have been different, please share those with us in the comments. And to read more of Sam’s amazing writing, please visit his index by clicking here.
With it being Christmas Eve, I thought that a good place to write about would be where the story of Christmas took place, Bethlehem. I went to Bethlehem when I was living in Jerusalem during my rabbinical studies. While the two cities are only six miles apart, what sounds like an easy commute, they are two different worlds. The entire city of Jerusalem has been, since 1967, under Israeli governance. Prior to 1967, only western Jerusalem was under Israeli control while East Jerusalem and the West Bank were under the control of Jordan. After the Six Day War, all of this territory came under the control of the Israelis; however, while Jerusalem was officially annexed by Israel, Bethlehem and the West Bank became occupied territory that was not formally a part of Israel nor any other country. All of this context is needed to understand a visit to Bethlehem and also the journey to get there from Jerusalem. The cheapest and most culturally fascinating way is to catch one of the buses that caters to the Arab population in East Jerusalem near Damascus Gate to the West Bank city of Beit Jala. While the bus that is mostly utilized by Palestinians going into Jerusalem to work, pray, or see family, we were stopped while on the bus by Israeli soldiers who came onto the bus to inspect everybody’s identification cards. While my heart raced having heard horror stories of this experience, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the young Israeli soldiers who my bus encountered were kind, cordial, and professional, talking to the bus riders and letting us continue after a couple minutes. As we crossed into Beit Jala, we were let off the bus and I immediately grabbed a taxi and negotiated a price for my driver to be my chauffer for the day.
A sign telling us that we were entering Area A, Palestinian territory
Though I am Jewish, it was not lost on me the holiness of this town, knowing that I was at the birthplace of the man that billions consider to be the son of God and the messiah. Unlike the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem like Silwan that, while charming and fascinating, are heavily polluted and where there is a lot of litter, Bethlehem’s Manger Square was beautiful and pristine. Bethlehem is one of eight Palestinian cities that are designated as “Area A.” In the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas: A, B and C. Area A is under exclusively Palestinian control, Area B is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, and Area C, where settlements are, is exclusively under Israeli control. With Bethlehem being the main tourist attraction within the Palestinian territory, it is kept clean and is full of security officers to ensure it is safe. Within Manger Square is the Church of Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, dating back to the 4th century CE. While it is dark inside, the candles lit by pilgrims provide some light as worshippers make their way down to the Grotto of the Nativity, marking the site of the birth of Jesus, where the Christian faithful kneel, kiss the spot, and pray. The tomb of St. Jerome is also in the church and worth seeing. Connected to the Church of Nativity is the 19th century Franciscan Church of St. Catherine. The church has a large nave and is built to hold many worshippers, as it is from this location that the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is broadcast throughout the world.
The spot where Jesus was born
From the Church of Nativity, make your way to other churches recalling the earliest days of Jesus that are short drives away. An interesting spot is the location of the story of the Milk Grotto Chapel, where according to legend, the Virgin Mary hid with the newborn Jesus in a cave. While breastfeeding the baby, a drop of milk landed on the floor and turned the stone white. Some of the white stone is chipped off and pounded into powder for pilgrims to purchase as fertility medicine. Nearby is the chapel at the Shepherd’s Fields, where angels supposedly told shepherds of the impending birth of the baby Jesus. The artwork of the shepherds dancing and celebrating is particularly interesting to look at. From this chapel, many continue their tour of biblical history to the wells of King David, another Bethlehem native, and the pools of his son, King Solomon, which provided drinking water to the ancient kingdom of Israel.
The chapel at Shepherd’s Fields
Instead, I chose to visit Herodium, a distance away, but an absolute must-see. Herod (74 BCE-4 BCE), the mad king of Judea, was also known for his spectacular architectural feats. Among Herod’s achievements were the port city of Caesarea, the renovation of the Second Temple, the Western Wall, and Masada. However, many consider one of Herod’s crown jewels to be Herodium, a mountain that he built rising 2,487 feet high, that was designed to be his tomb. Herodium served as more than just a tomb though, as it was also a fortress (used during the revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century CE) and a palace, featuring baths and mosaics that are still preserved today. Herodium was discovered in 1841 thanks to studying the writings of the Roman-Judean 1st century CE historian, Titus Flavius Josephus, who described in his book the location of Herodium.
As my cab driver drove me back towards Bethlehem, he asked me if I enjoyed the sites of Jesus, being a Christian. I told him that I am Jewish, not Christian. He looked at me and said that he was a Muslim and asked if that bothered me. I told him no, and he then told me that he was a supporter of the Hamas organization, an extremist Islamist organization responsible for waves of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, and that has pledged destruction of Israel, which made me a bit uneasy. However, he then went on to explain to me that he does not support terrorism, but that he was put off to the more moderate Palestinian Authority Fatah party because of the massive corruption of the leadership while the Palestinian people lived in poverty. In particular, he pointed out how leader Mahmoud Abbas’s shoes cost thousands of dollars. He then insisted on driving me past luxurious mansions that he pointed out as the homes of leaders of the Palestinian Authority. When we arrived back in Bethlehem, he drove me past the controversial Israeli security barrier (also called security fence, separation wall, or even by some, apartheid wall, depending on your political views), and took me to the artwork of the world-renowned mysterious graffiti artist, Banksy. Banksy has beautifully and controversially depicted through thought-provoking paintings the struggle and ambitions of the Palestinian people.
The security barrier cuts imposingly through Bethlehem and to go back to the Israeli side, I had to cross through a heavily fortified and armed Israeli checkpoint. While I have heard that crossing the checkpoint can take hours in the mornings or on Fridays, in the mid-afternoon, there was no line and the process went quickly for me and also for the Palestinians crossing over, though these checkpoints are known to close without warning. When I got to the other side, I tried to find the Tomb of the Jewish matriarch Rachel. I made a wrong turn and found myself seconds later with my hands in the air as Israeli soldiers pointed M-16’s at me and told me to halt. When I yelled at them that I was looking for the Tomb of Rachel, they pointed me in the right direction. I walked between concrete walls that tower overhead at 26 feet in height, stretching for blocks leading up to the tomb. Some look at the walls and recognize with legitimacy how they encroach on Palestinian territory and massively disrupt the daily lives of the Palestinians just to protect a tomb. At the same time, there is legitimacy in recognizing that other Jewish holy sites in the West Bank like Joseph’s Tomb have been attacked and destroyed. Like much of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there are competing narratives, both of which have legitimacy – and both sides have done wrong. The complexities and wrongdoings are evident when you walk into the Tomb of Rachel and see people praying at the tomb, which is separated by a mechitza, a divide for men and women, and featuring a Torah Ark covered with a white cloth. The white cloth is the unworn wedding gown of Nava Applebaum, a 20-year-old Israeli woman who, along with her father, was murdered in a terrorist attack in 2003 the night before her wedding. As Rachel was a woman who struggled with fertility before having two sons and dying in childbirth, her tomb has become a place of pilgrimage for women before their wedding and as newlyweds to pray for fertility.
Making my way through a checkpoint
As you wrap up your day trip to Bethlehem, you will have much to reflect on: ancient history, modern disputes, and holiness amidst conflict. Your daytrip to Bethlehem will be unforgettable, disturbing, meaningful and thought provoking.
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